May 19, 2019

O’Leary: Former rival receiving warm Hamilton welcome

Hamilton Tiger-Cats

Never one to mince words, Simoni Lawrence quickly got to the point when Chris Van Zeyl’s name was mentioned.

“We actually hated each other on the field. We called each other everything in the book,” Lawrence said on Sunday, at the conclusion of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats’ first day of training camp.

For every team, the first day of training camp is about change and possibility. Everyone is 0-0, just about everybody is fully healthy and in a lot of cases, longtime rivals are getting the first look at one another as teammates.

That’s the case with Van Zeyl, an 11-year Toronto Argonaut that won two Grey Cups with the team. The 35-year-old is the veteran presence that every coach hopes they have on their roster at the start of a season. The Argos announced his release just before 2 p.m Saturday. The Ticats announced his signing Sunday almost exactly 18 hours later.

“When he walked into the locker room, I saw him and I just got happy,” Lawrence said of his new teammate.

“I don’t have to worry about him trying to hit me after the play, stuff like that. I gave him a big hug, I gave him a box full of Timbits…just (to) take care of the big guy. He’s one of those guys that you hate to play against, but you love him when he’s on your team.”

» Condell fosters smooth transition for Ticats
» Primer: A team-by-team look at TC19
» Ticats’ Bennett gets a position change

Jackson Bennett is moving from defensive back to running back for the Ticats (Robert Greeley)

If you looked across the field at McMaster University on Sunday morning, you could see change just about everywhere you looked with this Ticats team. GM Eric Tillman, consultant Kent Austin and Head Coach June Jones have all moved on. Drew Allemang and Shawn Burke are sharing GM duties, Orlondo Steinauer is in at head coach and Tommy Condell is calling the offensive plays in Jones’ place. The Ticats have made substantial changes at running back, are auditioning a slew of receivers and have retooled their defensive line to get to the quarterback more than it did a year ago.

Van Zeyl is the newest of many new faces in camp, but he’s an important one. In his first day as a Ticat, the Fonthill, Ont. native worked out at his usual right tackle spot with the first-team, with Darius Ciraco, Mike Filer, Brandon Revenberg and Kelvin Palmer.

“You never know how things are going to fall,” said Steinauer, who coached on that Argos’ 2012 Grey Cup-winning team that Van Zeyl was a part of.

Chris Van Zeyl should be a nice addition. I’m looking forward to him coming out here and competing. He’s been there, he’s a champion and his play speaks for itself. We’re very fortunate to be able to bring in a player of Chris’ calibre.”

His name brought out a rare smile in the post-practice media scrum from starting QB Jeremiah Masoli.

“I always had respect and I always heard his name in the locker room,” Masoli said.

“People respect him and he’s got game. Obviously, it’s going to be a big help. He’s already chums with the O-line, so it gels pretty well right now.”

“I’m looking forward to starting new here and wearing these colours and getting used to playing with some of these guys that I’ve hated for years.”

Chris Van Zeyl

No doubt, it’s a whirlwind to go from spending the last six months training with one team in your head to be cut the day before camp and be on the field of your longtime rivals the next.

“It’s a big change for me,” Van Zeyl said. He said more than once that football is a business and that he understands that. He may have had slightly more heads up than the 18-hours that bookended his release and signing, but he didn’t want to go into details on how everything came together for him.

“I didn’t know what was going to happen. I was open to any possibility,” he said.

“I respect everybody (with the Argos). I understand they had a job to do and this is the end result. I’m just as happy here right now as I would have been in camp there.”

Setting foot on the field, getting hugged by the guy that used to curse you out and accepting a doughy bribe helps things move forward too.

“So far it’s been pretty seamless,” he said of the move.

“I’m looking forward to starting new here and wearing these colours and getting used to playing with some of these guys that I’ve hated for years.”